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This very brief survey runs to reflect, and to help you to follow, what you are likely to see most of in Chinese provincial and city museums – and to an extent in situ. In looking at the art displayed in Chinese museums it should be remembered that while for more than two thousand years an empire with splendid court produced an incredible wealth of art objects, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, many of these were acquired – more or less legitimately – or looted, by Westerners. Later, too, some of the great imperial collections were removed by the Nationalists to Taiwan , where they are now in the National Palace Museum.

Pottery, bronzes and sculpture

The earliest Chinese objects date back to the Neolithic farmers of the Yang­shao culture – well-made pottery vessels painted in red, black, brown and white with geometrical designs. You’ll notice that the decoration is usually from the shoulders of the pots upwards; this is because what has survived is mostly from graves and was designed to be seen from above when the pots w ere placed round the dead. From the same period there are decorated clay heads, perhaps for magic or ritual, and pendants and small ornaments of pol­ished stone or jade, with designs that are sometimes semi-abstract- a simplified sitting bird in polished jade is a very early example of the powerful Chinese tradition of animal sculpture. Rather later is the Neolithic Longshan pottery black, very thin and fine, wheel-turned and often highly polished, with ele­gantly, sharply defined shapes.

The subsequent era, horn around 1,500 13C, is dominated by Shang and Zhou bronze vessels used for preparing and serving food and wine, and for ceremonies and sacrifices. There are many distinct shapes, each with its own name and specific usage. One of the Most common is the ding , a three- or four legged vessel which harks back to the Neolithic pots used for cooking over open fires. As you’ll see from the museums, these bronzes have survived in great numbers. The Shang bronze industry appears already fully developed with advanced techniques and designs and no sign of a primitive stage. Casting meth­ods w ere highly sophisticated, using moulds, while design was firm and assured and decoration often stylized and linear, with both geometric and animal motifs as well as grinning masks of humans and fabulous beasts. There are some naturalistic animal forms among the vessels, too – fierce tigers, solid elephants and surly -looking rhinoceroses. Other bronze finds include weapons, decorated horse harnesses and sets of hells used in ritual music. Later, under the Zhou, the style of the bronzes becomes more varied and rich: some animal vessels are fan­tastically shaped and extravagantly decorated: others are simplified natural forms others again seem to be depicting not so much a fierce tiger, for example, as utter ferocity itself. You’ll also see from the Shang and Zhou small objects – ornaments, ritual pieces and jewelry pendants – with highly simplified but vivid forms of tortoises, salamanders and flying birds. From the end of this peri­od there are also painted clay funeral figures and a few carved wooden figures.

The Shang produced a few small sculptured human figures and animals in marble. but sculptures and works in stone begin to be found in great quantities in Han-dynasty tombs. The decorated bricks and tiles , the bas- reliefs and the terracotta figurines of acrobats, horsemen and ladies-in-waiting placed in the tombs to serve the dead, even the massive stone men and beasts set to guard the Spirit Way leading to the tomb, are all lifelike and reflect con­cern with everyday activities and material possessions. The scale models of houses with people looking out of the windows and of farmyards with their animals have a spontaneous gaiety and vigour; some of the watchdogs are the most realistic of all. Smaller objects like tiny statuettes and jewelry we re also carved, from ivory, jade and wood.

It was the advent of Buddhism which encouraged stone carving on a large scale in the round, with mallet and chisel. Religious sculpture was intro­duced from India and in the fourth-century caves at Datong and the earlier caves at Longmen, near Luoyang , the Indian influence is most strongly felt in the stylized Buddhas and attendants. Sometimes of huge size, they have an aloof grace and a rhythmic quality in their following robe, but also a smooth, bland and static feel. Not until the Tang do you get the full flowering of a native Chinese style, where the figures are rounder , with movement , and the positions, expressions and clothes are more natural and realistic. Some of the best examples are to be seen at Dunhuang and in the later caves at Longmen. The Song continued to carve religious figures and at Dazu in Sichuan , you’ll find good examples of a highly decora­tive style which had broadened its subject matter to include animals, ordinary people and scenes of everyday life: the treatment is down to earth, individual, sometimes even comic. The Dazu carvings are very well preserved and you see them painted, as they were meant to be. In later years less statuary was pro­duced until the Ming with their taste for massive and impressive tomb sculptures. You can see the best of these in Nanjing and Beijing.


In ceramics the Chinese tradition is very old. From the Neolithic painted pottery described above onwards. China developed a high level of excellence, based on the availability of high-quality materials. Its pre-eminence was recognized by the fact that for more than four hundred years the English language has used the word “china” to mean fine-quality ceramic ware. In some of tile early wares you can see the influence of shapes derived front bronze,, but soon the rise of regional potteries using different materials, and the development of special types for different uses, led to an enormous variety of shapes, textures and colours. This was noticeable by the Tang dynasty when an increase in the production of pottery for daily use was partly stimulated by the spread of tea drinking and by the restriction of the use of copper and bronze to coinage. The Tang also saw ma1or technical advances the production of true porcelain was finally achieved and Tang potters became very skilled in the use of poly chrome glazing. You can see evidence of this in the san cai (three-colour) statuettes of horses and camels, jugglers, traders, polo players, grooms and court ladies, which have conic in great numbers from imperial tombs, and which reflect in vivid, often humorous, detail and still brilliant colours so many aspects of the life of the time. It was a cosmopolitan civilization open to for­eign influences and this is clearly seen in Tang art.

The Song dynasty witnessed a great refinement of ceramic techniques and of regional specialization, main wares being named after the area which produced them. The keynote w a s simplicity and quiet elegance, both in colour and from. There was a preference for using a single pure color and for incised wares made to look like damask cloth. In the museums you’ll see the famous green celadon, the thin white porcelain ding ware and the pale grey-green ju ware reserved for imperial use. The Mongol Yuan dynasty, in the early four­teenth century, enriched Chinese tradition with outside influences – notably the introduction of cobalt blue underglaze, early examples of the blue and white porcelain -which vas to become so famous. The Ming saw the flower­ing of great potteries under imperial patronage, especially Jingdezhen . Taste moved away from Song simplicity and returned to the liking for vivid colour which the Tang had displayed – deep red, yellow and orange glazes, with a developing taste for pictorial representation. From the seventeenth century, Chinese export wares flowed in great quantity and variety to the West to sat­isfy, a growing demand for chinoiserie, and the efforts of the Chinese artists to follow what they saw as the tastes and techniques of the West produced a style of its own. The ear]y Qing created delicate enamel wares and famillee rose and ver te. So precise were the craftsmen that sonic porcelain includes the instruc­tions for the pattern in the glaze.

You can visit several potteries such as at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, where both early wares and modern trends are on display. Not so long ago they were turning out thousands of Figurines of Mao and Lu Xun sitting in arm­chairs; now the emphasis is on table lamp bases in the shape of archaic maid­ ens in tlo«-ing robes playing the lute, or creased and dimpled Laughing Buddhas.

Painting and calligraphy

While China’s famous ceramics were produced by nameless craftsmen, with painting and calligraphy we enter the realm of the amateur whose name has survived and who was often scholar, official, poet or all three. It has been said that the four great treasures of Chinese painting are the brush, the ink, the inkstone and the paper or silk. The earliest brush found, from about 400 BC, is made out of animal hairs glued to a hollow bamboo tube. Ink was made from pine soot mixed with glue and hardened into a stick which would be rubbed with water on an inkstone made of non-porous, carved and decorated slate. Silk was used for painting as early as the third century BC and paper was invented by Cai Lun in 106 AD. The first known painting on silk was found in a Han tomb; records show that there was a great deal of such painting but in 190 AD the vast imperial collection was destroyed in a civil war – the sol­diers used the silk to make tents and knapsacks. All we know of Hart painting comes from decorated tiles, lacquer, painted pottery and a few painted tombs, enough to show a great sense of movement and energy. The British Museum has a scroll in ink and colour on silk attributed to Gu Kaizhi from around 400 AD and entitled Admonitions of the Instructress to Court Ladies, and we know that the theory of painting was already being discussed by – this date, as the trea­tise. T he Six Principle of Painting dates from about 500 AD.

The Sui-Tang period, with a powerful stable empire and a brilliant court, w as exactly the place for painting to develop, and a great tradition of figure painting grew up, especially of court subjects – portraits and pictures of the emperor receiving envoys and of court ladies were produced, several of which are to be seen in Beijing . Although only a few of these survived, the walls of Tang tomb,, such as those near Xi’an , are rich in vivid frescoes which provide a realistic portrayal of court life. Wang Wei in the mid-eighth centu­ry was an early exponent of monochrome landscape painting, but the great flowering of landscape painting came with the Song dynasty. An academy was set up under imperial patronage and different schools of painting emerged which analyzed the natural world with great concentration and intensity: their style has set a mark on Chinese landscape painting ever since. There was also lively figure painting – a famous horizontal scroll in Beijing showing the Qing Ming River Festival is the epitome of this. The last emper­or of the Northern Song, Hui Zong, w as himself a painter of some note, which indicates the status of painting in China at the time. The Southern Song preferred a more intimate style and such subjects as flowers , birds and still life grew in popularity.

Under the Mongols there were many officials who found themselves unwanted or unwilling to serve the alien Yuan dynasty and who preferred to retire and paint. This produced the “literati” school, with many painters harking back to the styles of the tenth century. One of the great masters was Ni Can. He, among many others, also devoted himself to the ink paintings of bamboo which became important at this time. In this school, of which there are many extant examples, the highest skills of techniques and compo­sition were applied to the simplest of subjects, such as plum flowers. Both ink painting as well as more conventional media continued to be employed by painters of the next three or more centuries. Front the Yuan onwards a tremendous quantity of paintings has survived. Under the Ming dynasty there was a great interest in collecting the works of previous ages and a linked willingness by painters to be influenced by tradition. There are plenty of examples of bamboo and plum blossom, and bird and flower paintings being brought to a high decorative pitch, as well as a number of schools of land­ scape painting firmly rooted in traditional techniques. The arrival of the Manchu Qing dynasty did not disrupt the continuity of Chinese painting, but the art became wide open to many influences. It included the Italian Castiglione (Lang Shi-ning in Chinese) who specialized in horses, dogs and flowers tinder imperial patronage, the Four Wangs who reinterpreted Song and Yuan styles in an orthodox manner, and the individualists such as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou and sonic Buddhist monk, w ho objected to derivative art and sought a more distinctive approach to subject and style. But, on the whole, the weight of tradition was powerful enough to maintain the old approach.


The word “calligraphy” is derived front the Greek for “ beautiful writing”, and was crystallized into a high art form in China, where the use of the brush saw the development of handwriting of various styles, valued on a par with painting. There are a number of different scripts: the seal script is the archaic form found on oracle bones; the lishu is the clerical style and was used in inscriptions on stone; the kaishu is the regular style closest to the modern printed form; and cao shu (grass script), a cursive style, is the most individual handwritten style. Emperors, poets and scholars over centuries have left examples of their calligraphy cut into stone at beauty spots, on mountains and in grottoes, tombs and temples all over China ; you can see some early examples in the caves at Longmen. At one stage during the Tang dynasty, callig­raphy was so highly thought of that it was the yardstick for the selection of high officials.

Other arts

Jade and lacquerware have also been constantly in use in China since earliest times. In Chinese eves, jade, in white and shades of green or brown, is the most precious of stones. It was used to make the earliest ritual objects, such as the flat disc Pi, symbol of Heaven, which was found in Shang and Zhou graces. Jade was also used as a mark of rank and for ornament, in its most strik­ing form in the jade burial suits which you will see in the country’s museums.

Lacquer, made from the sap of the lac tree, is also found as early as the Zhou. Many layers of the stuff were painted on a wood or cloth base which was then carved and inlaid with gold, silver or tortoiseshell, or often most delicately painted. There are numerous examples of painted lacquer boxes and basket front the Han and, as with jade, the use of this material has continued ever since.